Our Story Begins New And Selected Stories

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"Me too," Mitch said.

He laughed, and Bliss laughed with him. They watched over Helen's shoulders as she bent down to sift the gleaming ciystal. First she chopped it with a razor. Then she began to spread it out. Mitch and Bliss smiled up at her from the mirror, and Helen smiled back between them. Their faces were rosy with candlelight. They were the faces of three well-wishers, carolers, looking in at Helen through a window filling up with snow.

Chapter 8

Desert Breakdown, 1968

Krystal was asleep when they crossed the Colorado. Mark had promised to stop for some pictures, but when the moment came he looked over at her and drove on. Kiystal's face was puffy from the heat blowing into the car. Her hair, cut short for summer, hung damp against her forehead. Only a few strands lifted in the breeze. She had her hands folded over her belly, which made her look even more pregnant than she was.

The tires sang on the metal grillwork of the bridge. The river stretched away on both sides, blue as the empty sky. Mark saw the shadow of the bridge on the water with the car running through the girders, and the glint of water under the grillwork. Then the tires went silent. California, Mark thought, and for a time he felt almost as good as he'd expected to feel.

That soon passed. He'd broken his word, and he was goingto hear about it when (Crystal woke up. He almost turned the car around. But he didn't want to have to stop, and hoist Hans up on his shoulders, and watch Krystal point that camera at him again. By now Kiystal had hundreds of pictures of Mark, and of Mark with Hans on his shoulders, standing in front of canyons and waterfalls and monumental trees and the three automobiles they'd owned since coming stateside.

Mark did not photograph well. For some reason he always looked discouraged. But those pictures gave the wrong idea. An old platoon sergeant of Mark's had an expression he liked to use-"free, white, and twenty-one." Well, that was an exact description of Mark. Everything was in front of him. All he needed was an opening.

Two hawks wheeled overhead, their shadows immense on the baking sand. A spinning funnel of dust moved across the road and disappeared behind a billboard. The billboard had a picture of Eugene McCarthy on it. McCarthy's hair was blowing around his head. He was grinning. The slogan below read a breath of fresh air. You could tell this was California because in Arizona a McCarthy billboard would last about five minutes. This one did have some bullet holes in it, but in Arizona someone would have burned it down or blown it up. The people there were just incredibly backward.

In the distance the mountains were bare and blue. Mark passed exit signs for a town called Blythe. He considered stopping for gas, but there was still half a tank and he didn't want to risk waking (Crystal or Hans. He drove on into the desert.

They would make Los Angeles by dinnertime. Mark had an army buddy there who'd offered to put them up for as long as they wanted to stay. There was plenty of room, his buddy said. He was house-sitting for his parents while they made up their minds whether to get divorced or not.

Mark was sure he'd find something interesting in Los Angeles. Something in the entertainment field. He had been in plays all through high school and could sing pretty well. But his big talent was impersonation. He could mimic anybody. In Germany he'd mimicked a southern fellow in his company so accurately that after a couple of weeks of it the boy asked to be transferred to another unit. Mark knew he'd gone overboard. He laid off and in the end the boy withdrew his request for transfer.

His best impersonation was his father, Dutch. Sometimes, just for fun, Mark called his mother and talked to her in Dutch's slow, heavy voice, rolling every word along on treads, like a tank. She always fell for it. Mark would go on until he got bored, then say something like, "By the way, Dottie, we're bankrupt." Then she'd catch on and laugh. Unlike Dutch, she had a sense of humor.

A truck hurtled past. The sound of the engine woke Hans, but Mark reached into the back and rubbed the satin edge of the baby blanket against his cheek. Hans put his thumb in his mouth. Then he stuck his rear end in the air and went back to sleep.

The road shimmered. It seemed to float above the desert floor. Mark sang along with the radio, which he'd been turning up as the signal grew weaker. Suddenly it blared. He turned it down, but too late. Hans woke up again and started fussing. Mark rubbed his cheek with the blanket. Hans pushed Mark's arm away and said, "No!" It was the only word he knew. Mark glanced back at him. He'd been sleeping on a toy car whose wheels had left four red dents on the side of his face. Mark stroked his cheek. "Pretty soon," he said, "pretty soon, Hansy," not meaning anything in particular but wanting to sound upbeat.

Krystal was awake now, too. For a moment she didn't move or say anything. Then she shook her head rapidly from side to side. "So hot," she said. She held up the locket-watch around her neck and looked at Mark. He kept his eyes on the road. "Back from the dead," he said. "Boy, you were really out."

"The pictures," she said. "Mark, the pictures."

"There wasn't any place to stop," he said.

"Butyou promised."

Mark looked at her, then back at the road. "I'm sorry," he said. "There'll be other rivers."

"I wanted that one," Krystal said, and turned away. Mark could tell that she was close to tears. It made him feel tired. "All right," he said. "Do you want me to go back? " He slowed the car to prove he meant it. "If that's what you want just say the word."

She shook her head.

Mark sped up.

Hans began to kick the back of the seat. Mark didn't say anything. At least it was keeping Hans busy and quiet. "Hey, gang," Mark said. "Listen up. I've got ten big ones that say we'll be diving into Rick's pool by six o'clock." Hans gave the seat a kick that he felt clear through to his ribs. "Ten big ones," he said. "Any takers?" He looked over at Krystal and saw that her lips were trembling. He patted the seat beside him. She hesitated, then slid over and leaned against him, as he knew she would. Krystal wasn't one to hold a grudge. He put his arm around her shoulder.

"So much desert," she said.

"It's something, all right."

"No trees," she said. "At home I could never imagine."

Hans stopped kicking. Then he grabbed Mark's ears. Kiystal laughed and pulled him over the seat onto her lap. He immediately arched his back and slid down to the floor, where he began tugging at the gearshift.

"I have to stop," Krystal said. She patted her belly. "This one likes to sit just so, here, on my bladder."

Mark nodded. Kiystal knew the English words for what Dottie had always been content to call her plumbing, and when she was pregnant she liked to describe in pretty close detail what went on in there. It made Mark queasy.

"Next chance we get," he said. "We're low on gas anyway."

Mark turned off at an exit with one sign that said gas. There was no mention of a town. The road went north over bleached hardpan crazed with fissures. It seemed to be leading them toward a distant, solitaiy mountain that looked to Mark like a colossal sinking ship. Phantom water glistened in the desert. Rabbits darted back and forth across the road. Finally they came to the gas station, an unpainted cement-block building with some pickup trucks parked in front.

There were four men sitting on a bench in the shade of the building. They watched the car pull up.

"Cowboys," Krystal said. "Look, Hans, cowboys!"

Hans stood on Kiystal's legs and looked out the window.

Kiystal still thought eveiyone who wore a cowboy hat was a cowboy. Mark had tried to explain that it was a style, but she refused to understand. He stopped at a pump and turned off the engine.

The men stared at them, their faces dark under the wide brims of their hats. They looked as if they'd been there forever. One of them got up from the bench and walked over. He was tall and carried a paunch that seemed out of place on his bony frame. He bent down and looked inside the car. He had little black eyes with no eyebrows. His face was red, as if he were angry about something.

"Regular, please," Mark said. "All she'll take."

The man stared openly at Kiystal's belly. He straightened up and walked away, past the men on the bench, up to the open door of the building. He stuck his head inside and yelled. Then he sat on the bench again. The man next to him looked down and mumbled something. The others laughed.

Somebody else in a cowboy hat came out of the building and went around to the back of the car.

"Mark," Kiystal said.

"I know," Mark said. "The bathroom." When he got out of the car the heat took him by surprise; he could feel it coming down like rain.

The person pumping gas said, "You need oil or anything?" and that was when Mark realized it was a woman. She was looking down at the nozzle, so he couldn't see her face, only the top of her hat. Her hands were black with grease. "My wife would like to use your bathroom," he said.

She nodded. When the tank was full she thumped on the roof of the car. "Okay," she said, and walked back to the building.

Kiystal opened the door and swung her legs out, then rocked forward and pushed herself up into the light. She stood for a moment, blinking. The four men looked at her. So did Mark. He made allowances for the fact that Kiystal was pregnant, but she was still too heavy. Her bare arms were flushed from the heat. So was her face. She looked like one of those stein-slinging waitresses in the Biergarten where they used to drink. He wished these men could have seen how she looked wearing that black dress of hers, with her hair long, when they'd first started going out together.

Kiystal shaded her eyes with one hand. With the other she pulled her blouse away from where it stuck to her skin. "More desert," she said. She lifted Hans out of the car and carried him toward the building, but he kicked free and ran over to the bench. He stood there in front of the men, naked except for his diaper.

"Come here," Kiystal said. When he didn't obey she started after him, then looked at the men and stopped.

Mark went over. "Let's go, Hansy," he said, picking him up, feeling a sudden tenderness that vanished when the boy began to struggle.

The woman took Krystal and Hans inside the building, then came out and stood by the pile of scrap lumber beside the door. "Hans," she said. "That's a funny name for a little boy."

"It was her father's name," Mark said, and so it was. The original Hans had died shortly before the baby was born. Otherwise Mark never would have agreed. Even Germans didn't name their kids Hans anymore.

One of the men flicked a cigarette butt toward Mark's car. It fell just short and lay there, smoldering. Mark took it as a judgment on the car. It was a good one, a 1958 Bonneville he'd bought two weeks ago when the Ford started belching smoke, but a previous owner had put a lot of extra chrome on it and right now it was gleaming eveiy which way. It looked foolish next to these dented pickups with their gun racks and dull, blistering paint. Mark wished he'd tanked up in Blythe.

Kiystal came outside again, carrying Hans. She had brushed her hair and looked better.

Mark smiled at her. "All set?"

She nodded. "Thankyou," she said to the woman.

Mark would have liked to use the bathroom too, but he wanted to get out of there. He started for the car, Kiystal behind him. She laughed deep in her throat. "You should have seen," she said. "They have a motorcycle in their bedroom." Kiystal probably thought she was whispering, but to Mark eveiy word was like a shout. He didn't say anything. He adjusted the visor while Kiystal settled Hans on the backseat. "Wait," she told Mark, and got out of the car again. She had the camera.

"Kiystal," Mark said.

She aimed the camera at the four men. When she snapped the shutter their heads jerked up. Kiystal advanced the film, then aimed the camera again.

"Krystal, get in!"

"Yes," Krystal said, but she was still aiming, braced on the open door of the car, her knees bent slightly. She snapped another picture and slid onto the seat. "Good," she said. "Cowboys for Reiner."

Reiner was Krystal's brother. He had once driven sixty miles to see Shane.

Mark didn't dare look over at the bench. He put the key in the ignition and glanced up and down the road. He turned the key. Nothing happened.

Mark waited for a moment. Then he tried again. Still nothing. The ignition went tick tick tick tick, and that was all. Mark turned it off and the three of them sat there. Even Hans was quiet. Mark felt the men watching him. That was why he didn't lower his head to the wheel. He stared straight ahead, furious at the tears stinging his eyes, blurring the line of the horizon, the shape of the building, the dark forms of the trucks, and the figure coming toward them over the white earth.

It was the woman. She bent down. "Okay," she said. "What's the trouble?" The smell of whiskey filled the car.

For almost half an hour the woman messed with the engine. She had Mark turn the key while she watched, then turn it some more while she did various things under the hood. At last she decided that the trouble was in the alternator. She couldn't fix it and had no parts on hand. Mark would have to get one in Indio or Blythe or maybe as far away as Palm Springs. It wasn't going to be easy, finding an alternator for a ten-year-old car. But she said she'd call around for him.

Mark waited in the car. He tried to act as if everything were all right, but when Kiystal looked at him she made a sympathetic noise and squeezed his arm. Hans was asleep in her lap. "Everything will be fine," she said.

Mark nodded.

The woman came back toward the car, and Mark got out to meet her.

"Aren't you the lucky one," she said, handing him a piece of paper with an address written on it. "There wasn't anything in Indio," she said, "but this fellow in Blythe can fix you up. I'll need two dollars for the calls."

Mark opened his wallet and gave her the money. He had sixty-five dollars left, all that remained of his army severance pay. "How much will the alternator cost?" he asked.

She closed the hood of the car. "Fifty-six dollars, I think it was."

"Jesus," Mark said.

"You're lucky they had one."

"I suppose so," Mark said. "It just seems like a lot of money. Can you jump-start me? "

"If you've got cables. Mine are lent out."

"I don't have any," Mark said. He squinted against the sun. Though he hadn't looked directly at the men on the bench, he knew they'd been watching him and was sure they had heard everything. He was also sure they had jumper cables. People who drove trucks always carried stuff like that. But if they didn't want to help, he wasn't going to ask.

"I suppose I could walk up to the highway and hitch a ride," Mark said, more loudly than he meant to.

"I guess you could," the woman said.

Mark looked back at Krystal. "Is it okay if my wife stays here?"

"I guess she'll have to," the woman said. She took off her hat and wiped her brow with the back of her sleeve. Her hair was pure yellow, gathered in a loose bun that glowed in the light. Her eyes were a strangely pale blue. She put her hat back on and told Mark how to get to the parts store. She made him repeat the directions. Then he went back to the car.

Kiystal looked straight ahead and bit her lip while Mark explained the situation. "Here?" she said. "You are goingto leave us here?"

Hans was awake again. He had pulled the volume knob off the radio and was banging it on the dashboard.

"Just for a couple hours," Mark said, though he knew it would take longer.

Kiystal wouldn't look at him.

"There's no choice," he said.

The woman had been standing next to Mark. She moved him aside and opened the door. "You come with me," she said. "You and the little one." She held out her arms. Hans went to her immediately and peered over her shoulder at the men on the bench. Kiystal hesitated, then got out of the car, ignoring Mark's hand when he reached down to help her.

"It won't take long," he said. He smiled at Hans. "Pretty soon, Hansy," he said, and turned and began to walk toward the road.

The woman went inside with Hans. Kiystal stood beside the car and watched Mark move farther and farther away, until the line of his body started to waver in the heat and then vanished altogether. It was like seeing someone slip below the surface of a lake.

The men stared at Kiystal as she walked to the building. She felt heavy, and vaguely ashamed.

The woman had all the shades pulled down. It was like evening inside: dim, peaceful, cool. Kiystal could make out the shapes of things but not their colors. There were two rooms. One had a bed and a motorcycle. The second, a bigger room, had a sofa and chairs on one side and on the other a refrigerator and stove and table.

Kiystal sat at the table with Hans in her lap while the woman poured Pepsi from a large bottle into three tumblers full of ice. She had taken her hat off, and the weak light shining from the open door of the refrigerator made a halo around her face and hair. Usually Kiystal measured herself against other women, but this one she watched with innocent, almost animal curiosity.

The woman took a smaller bottle off the top of the refrigerator. She wiggled it by the neck. "You wouldn't want any of this," she said. Krystal shook her head. The woman poured some of the liquor into her glass and pushed the other two glasses across the table. Hans took a drink, then started making motorboat noises.

"That boy," the woman said.

"His name is Hans."

"Not this one," the woman said. "The other one."

"Oh, Mark," Kiystal said. "Mark is my husband."

The woman nodded and took a drink. She leaned back in her chair. "Where are you people headed?"

Krystal told her about Los Angeles, about Mark finding work in the entertainment field. The woman smiled, and Kiystal wondered if she had expressed herself correctly. In school she had done well in English, and the American boys she talked to always complimented her, but during those two months with Mark's parents in Phoenix she had lost her confidence. Dutch and Dottie always looked bewildered when she spoke, and she herself understood almost nothing of what was said around her, though she pretended that she did.

The woman kept smiling, but there was a tightness to her mouth that made the smile look painful somehow. She took another drink.

"What does he do?" she asked.

Kiystal tried to think how to explain what Mark did. When she first saw him, he had been sitting on the floor at a party and everyone around him was laughing. She had laughed too, though she didn't know why. It was a gift he had. But it was difficult to put into words. "Mark is a singer," she said.

"A singer," the woman said. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back and began to sing. Hans stopped fidgeting and watched her.

When the woman was through, Krystal said, "Good, good," and nodded, though she hadn't been able to follow the song and hated the style, which sounded to her like yodeling.

"My husband always liked to hear me sing," the woman said. "I suppose I could've been a singer if I'd wanted." She finished her drink and looked at the empty glass.

From outside Krystal heard the voices of the men on the bench, low and steady. One of them laughed.

"We had Del Ray to sing at our prom," the woman said.

The door banged. The man who'd stared at Kiystal's belly stomped into the kitchen and stared at her again. He turned and started pulling bottles of Pepsi out of the refrigerator. "Webb, what do you think?" the woman said. "This girl's husband's a singer." She reached out and ran one hand up and down his back. "We'll need something for supper," she said, "unless you want rabbit again."

He kicked the refrigerator door shut with his foot and started out of the kitchen, bottles clinking. Hans slid to the floor and ran after him.

"Hans," Kiystal said.

The man stopped and looked down at him. "That's right," he said. "You come with me."

It was the first time Krystal had heard him speak. His voice was thin and dry. He went back outside with Hans behind him.

The shoes Mark had on were old and loose, comfortable in the car, but his feet started to burn after a few minutes of walking in them. His eyes burned too, from sweat and the bright sun shining into his face.

For a while he sang songs, but after a couple of numbers his throat cracked with dryness and he gave it up. Anyway, it made him feel stupid singing about Camelot in this desert, stupid and a little afraid because his voice sounded so small. He walked on.

The road was sticky underfoot, and his shoes made little sucking noises at eveiy step. He considered walking beside the road instead of on it but he was afraid a snake would bite him.

Though he wanted to stay cheerful, he kept thinking that now they'd never get to Los Angeles in time for dinner. They'd pull in late like they always did, stuff spilling out of the car, Mark humping the whole mess inside while Kiystal stood by looking dazed in the glare of the headlights, Hans draped over her shoulder. Mark's buddy would be in his bathrobe. They'd tiy to joke but Mark would be too preoccupied. After they made up a bed for Kiystal and put the crib together for Hans, which would take forever because half the screws were missing, Mark and his buddy would go down to the kitchen, drink a beer, and try to talk, but they'd end up yawning in each other's faces. Then they would go to bed.

Mark could see the whole thing. Whatever they did, it always turned out like this. Nothing ever worked.

A truck went past in the wrong direction. The two men inside were wearing cowboy hats. They glanced at Mark, then looked straight ahead again. He stopped and watched the truck disappear into the heat.

He turned and kept walking. Broken glass glittered along the roadside.

If Mark lived here and happened to be driving down this road and saw some person walking all by himself, he'd stop and ask if anything was wrong. He believed in helping people.

But he didn't need them. He could manage, just as he'd manage without Dutch and Dottie. He would do it alone, and someday they'd wish they had helped. He would be in some place like Las Vegas, performing at one of the big clubs. Then, at the end of his booking, he'd fly Dutch and Dottie out for his last big show-the finale. He'd fly them first class and put them up in the best hotel, the Sands or whatever, and get them front-row seats. And when the show was over, all the people going crazy, whistling and stamping on the floor and eveiything, he would call Dutch and Dottie up on the stage. He'd stand between them, holding their hands, and then, when all the clapping and yelling trailed off and eveiybody was quiet, smiling at him from the tables, he would raise Dutch and Dottie's hands above his head and say, "Folks, I just wanted you to meet my parents and tell you what they did for me." Here he'd stop for a second and get this really serious look on his face. "It's impossible to tell you what they did for me," he would say, pausing for effect, "because they didn't do anything for me! They didn't do squat." Then he would drop their hands and jump off the stage, leaving them there.

Mark walked faster, leaning forward, eyes narrowed against the light. His hands flicked back and forth as he walked.

No, he wouldn't do that. People might take it wrong. A stunt like that could ruin his career. He'd do something even better. He'd stand up there and tell the whole world that without the encouragement and support the two of them had given him, the faith and love, et cetera, he would've thrown in the towel a longtime ago.

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